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10 Incredible Films That Made Kirk Douglas a Screen Legend (And the Ones He Was Most Proud Of)

Photo Credit: Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images

The films of Kirk Douglas live on even though the Golden Age star left us at the ripe old age of 103. With a career spanning seven decades, it’s impossible to sum up his life in movies. But picking out some of his best big-screen outings sounds like a great idea! Here are 10 performances that helped put Douglas into the Golden Age Hall of Fame. We’ll also learn which films he was most proud of making.


Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in Spartacus
Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in Spartacus, 1960 (Photo Credit: Bryna Productions / MovieStillsDB)

Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic cast Douglas as a feisty Roman slave who rises up against his oppressors. The classic line “I am Spartacus!” is one of the most famous in screen history.

Douglas also defied the American government by hiring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The Communist-hunting House of Un-American Activities Committee had blacklisted Trumbo. Douglas wanted him anyway. The rest is history.

The Vikings

Kirk Douglas Vikings
Poster for Richard Fleischer’s 1958 adventure film, The Vikings, starring, Kirk Douglas (left) and Tony Curtis. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

In 1956, the dimpled wonder played Einar, a vengeful Viking, in this Technicolor adventure directed by Richard Fleischer. Ever the tough guy, Douglas’s character was attacked by a falcon and lost an eye. Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Ernest Borgnine co-starred.

Douglas was also involved behind the scenes. His production company Bryna (named after his mother) put together both the movie and subsequent TV series Tales of the Vikings (1959).

Paths of Glory

Kirk Douglas Paths of Glory
Paths Of Glory, poster, Kirk Douglas on poster art, 1957. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Another Kubrick collaboration, this one in stark black and white. The 1957 film may have been about conflict – namely, World War I – but it had a powerful anti-war message. Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, Douglas took the lead role of Colonel Dax.

The production was preserved in the US National Film Registry in 1992, after its significance was acknowledged by the Library of Congress.

The Bad and the Beautiful

The Bad and the Beautiful
Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Douglas was a keen producer, and in 1951 he got the chance to portray a movie mogul in Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 melodrama. Jonathan Shields was a ruthless and alienating presence who was all about getting results, no matter who got hurt.

Lana Turner and Walter Pidgeon were just two of his co-stars. He received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his magnetic performance.

Lonely are the Brave

Kirk Douglas Lonely are the Brave
Lonely Are The Brave poster, 1962. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

As an American icon, it was inevitable that Douglas would play in Westerns. Appropriately for the rule breaker, his character “Jack” Burns was a free spirit looking to evade the trappings of modern society.

This 1962 drama featured him alongside Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau, and was directed by David Miller. Back on the payroll was Dalton Trumbo, who signed up under another Douglas company, Joel Productions (named after Kirk’s son). Douglas earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor for this role.

Lust for Life

Kirk Douglas Lust for Life
Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh from the film Lust For Life, 1956. (Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

The movie hard man had an artistic side. This was greatly in evidence for 1956’s Lust for Life, about troubled painter Vincent van Gogh. Directed by Vincente Minnelli (with input from George Cukor) it co-starred Anthony Quinn as Gauguin.

It became a special movie for Douglas, who received another Oscar nod for his work, this time as Best Actor. When the star turned 101 a cake was made with sunflowers on it, referencing the artist’s preoccupation with those flowers.


Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas in one of his first great films poses in a boxing stance for the film Champion, directed by Mark Robson, 1949. (Photo Credit: Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Another highlight was the gritty boxing drama Champion, directed by Mark Robson in 1949. A film noir, it starred Douglas as Midge Kelly, who used his fists and wits to get to the top.

He earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination – though Douglas didn’t win any little gold men individually, he did finally receive an Honorary Award from the Academy in 1996. Champion was also celebrated in cake form for the actor’s 101st birthday bash…!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
From top: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, 1955. (Photo Credit: LMPC via Getty Images)

The ahead-of-their-time ideas of Jules Verne and the Golden Age of Hollywood combined in this spectacular 1954 odyssey, which cast Douglas as seafarer Ned Land. Land truly met the water when he encountered James Mason’s Captain Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus.

Richard Fleischer was in the director’s chair, going on to work with Douglas two years later for The Vikings. Douglas only had a falcon to battle in that flick. In this one, he had to wrangle a giant squid! The mechanical creation ranks among Tinseltown’s definitive monsters.

The Fury

Kirk Douglas
Amy Irving and Kirk Douglas on the set of The Fury, based on the novel by John Farris and directed by Brian De Palma. (Photo by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The 1970s saw Douglas take on some intriguing projects, including Brian De Palma’s sci-fi horror movie about psychic powers. The veteran actor played ex-CIA man Peter Sandza, who gets caught up in a dangerous conspiracy fueled by devastating mind power.

While Douglas wasn’t associated so much with fantasy genres, The Fury and 1980’s Saturn 3 put his striking looks and talent to work against forces beyond human control.

Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole
Ace In The Hole poster, 1951. (Photo Credit: LMPC via Getty Images)

One of the greatest films showcasing Douglas vs the establishment (actually the establishment media) is Billy Wilder’s film noir Ace In The Hole from 1951. In the star’s extensive gallery of memorable and sometimes unsavory characters, reporter Chuck Tatum surely ranks among the most infamous.

Tatum scandalously interferes with the story of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who’s trapped in a cave network. Operating without scruples, Douglas gave it to the audience straight, leaving them no option but to gasp at his appalling onscreen antics. Now that’s acting…!

But what did Kirk Douglas think?

Cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the hospital
Cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a publicity still. (Photo Credit: Carlito / United Artists / MovieStillsDB)

These might be 10 of the most popular Kirk Douglas films, but that doesn’t mean the actor was a fan. In fact, he once wrote an article for HuffPost outlining what works he was actually the proudest of. Of course, some fan favorites were on this list: Champion, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lust for Life, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and Lonely Are the Brave.

The latter was his absolute favorite film of all time. The remainder of his list are favorites for different reasons. Some because of when they fell in his career, while others were selected for more sentimental reasons. This certainly applies to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, included on Douglas’ list despite not being his film. He planned to produce it, but passed the rights over to his son Michael who asked to try producing it – and did so with incredible success.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers publicity still
Kirk Douglas as Walter O’Neil and Barbara Stanwyck as Martha Ivers in a publicity still for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. (Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures / MoviePics1001 / MovieStillsDB)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was a favorite because it was Douglas’ first-ever film. He was cast alongside Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck, major actors who he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of. Douglas made a point to memorize his part perfectly, delivering his lines without error in the first rehearsal. It was only then he realized that “everyone was looking at me. I had learned Van Heflin’s part instead [of my own].”

This wasn’t the last time he would embarrass himself on set. As a non-smoker at the time, it was quite a shock to the system when the director had him light up for a scene. Douglas managed to hold it together long enough to run to his dressing room and throw up. Despite these two incidents, he still looked back fondly at this first foray into Hollywood.

Act of Love

Kirk Douglas holding Dany Robin's shoulders in a scene from Act of Love
Kirk Douglas with his hands on Dany Robin’s shoulders in a scene from the film ‘Act Of Love’, 1953. (Photo Credit: United Artists/Getty Images)

Another which made it on Douglas’ list of favorites was the 1953 film Act of Love. He even admitted in his article, “I don’t know if this is a good film, but to me it’s a great film.” What made it stand out to him was that it was where he met his wife Anne Buydens, who was working in publicity for the movie. Douglas knew then that he wanted to take her out on a date, but Buydens was skeptical.

He managed to convince her to join him at a charity event in Paris which was a circus performance. Douglas was asked to be a part of the show, to which he readily agreed. He was given everything he would need to clean up after the elephants right following their act. When he came out, Buydens “laughed so hard that I knew I had won her over.”

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Kirk Douglas’s body of work is immense and lives on in the annals of Hollywood lore.